Saakashvili's party seeks relevancy in the Georgia it created

Nearly a decade after Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement ushered in the Rose Revolution and reshaped Georgia, the party is once again on the outside looking in.

David Mdzinarishvili/Reuters
Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili addresses people during a rally held by United National Movement party supporters in Tbilisi, Georgia on Friday.

Nearly 10 years after Mikheil Saakashvili helped peacefully topple the government of Georgia amid the Rose Revolution, he and his United National Movement (UNM) party are effectively back where they began: in opposition.

On Friday in Tbilisi, the UNM held its first demonstration since its decisive defeat by the Georgian Dream (GD) coalition in parliamentary elections last October.

But while some 10,000 of its supporters turned out, the UNM is struggling to prove that it is still a force to be reckoned with, as a barrage of scandals threaten its relevancy in the new Georgia that it created.

The UNM stepped into the limelight in 2003 when it led masses to the streets to protest rigged parliamentary elections and then peacefully overthrew the government of Eduard Shevardnadze, in what was dubbed the Rose Revolution. In January 2004, the charismatic Mr. Saakashvili became president with 94 percent of the vote.

Saakashvili’s young, revolutionary team moved quickly to rebuild what US then-Ambassador to Georgia Richard Miles had called a “failed government” by initiating extensive anti-corruption reforms that prompted US President George W. Bush to declare Georgia a “beacon of liberty” during his 2005 visit to Tbilisi. The World Bank named Georgia the top reformer in the world in 2006 and 2008.

Yet, despite the high marks for reform from abroad, Saakashvili became increasingly unpopular in Georgia, where the unemployment rate has hovered between 13 and 17 percent since 2004.

“He strengthened the state through rapid reforms,” says Giorgi Tarkhan-Mouravi, co-director of Institute for Policy Studies. “But all reformers [in Georgia] start with a few years of enthusiasm, then after a couple of years it turns to disappointment.”

Saakashvili’s legacy is marked by the argument that the government sacrificed the establishment of democratic institutions for the sake of modernization. While the government made dramatic economic progress, Georgians saw too much power concentrated in too few hands and also felt that justice was administered selectively. The tipping point came in November 2007, when riot police violently crushed an opposition protest.

A new standard?

Ghia Nodia, chairman of the Caucasus Institute of Peace, Democracy and Development, admits that Saakashvili’s government was far from the democratic ideal, but contends that Georgia’s democratic progress should be gauged relative to where the country was a few years earlier, not by absolute values.

He says Saakashvili set a precedent of public expectations that every following government will be judged by. The cynicism of the past has been replaced by a new public attitude of responsibility.

“People used to say, 'you can’t do that in Georgia.' Now, they talk of a need for a balanced foreign policy and an independent court,” says Mr. Nodia, who served as Saakashvili’s minister of education and science.

He says that that a measurable indicator for progress is the difference between the Rose Revolution, which was revolutionary change, and October’s parliamentary elections, which was a constitutional transition.

“The best test for democracy is how a government leaves,” he says.

Scandal and accusations

Although Saakashvili nobly conceded his party’s defeat, the process of pluralism has been far from rosy. Saakashvili will be president until October and the UNM still holds about one-third of parliament seats. Yet since the elections, the UNM has had to defend itself from an onslaught of accusations and scandals that the GD government has targeted.

“There’s a feeling among some in the new government that the UNM is dangerous and responsible for the destruction of the country, and should be prevented from doing that again,” says Mark Mullen, an independent analyst based in Tbilisi for 15 years.

Dozens of UNM officials have been arrested on abuse of power charges while several of Saakashvili’s close associates, including the Tbilisi mayor, are under investigation. Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili has called for an inquest into the 2008 war with Russia. The public defender’s office has damning evidence that contradicts the official version of events regarding an armed clash last August that claimed the lives of 11 militants and 3 Georgian troops. And declassified spending records reveal how tens of thousands of state dollars were spent on lavish vacations, special gifts, and the private schooling of the president’s sons.

Ivanishvili has “managed to destroy a lot,” says presidential adviser Raphael Gluksman. “We thought it would be in his best interests to work together, but implicating everybody creates a non-debating atmosphere."

Gluksman says, “You can’t rebuild a party when you’re defending yourself.”

What future?

The UNM is rebranding itself as a pro-European party that has learned from its mistakes, and is denouncing Ivanishvili as a pro-Russian leader who wants to destroy everything the UNM has built, but it’s a tough sell. A March survey performed by the Caucasus Resource Research Centers for the National Democratic Institute reveals that Ivanishvili’s party has a 60 percent support rating. Meanwhile, the UNM has 10 percent.

As the UNM fights to re-establish its standing, some think it would do better without Saakashvili, who was not scheduled to appear at his party’s rally last week, but did.

Lawrence Scott Sheets, South Caucasus Project Director for the International Crisis Group, says there’s no political future for Saakashvili, who he claims was a modernizer, not a democrat.

“His legacy, his greatest achievement," says Mr. Sheets, "happened the day he conceded.”

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